Last night, the upstate wind was cool, with just a hint of the winter chill to come — the season when thoughts turn toward hockey. Doug Hoffman, the Conservative party candidate in New York’s 23rd congressional district, agreed. As the hour grew late and he made his final rounds of handshakes and hugs, something about the moment, and the cold air, stirred a memory.
“I think back to early 1980,” said Hoffman, as supporters buzzed around him. “That was around the time I first got involved with the Lake Placid Olympics.” As those games opened, Pres. Jimmy Carter was beginning his final, gloomy year in the White House. Ronald Reagan had just lost the Iowa caucus to George H. W. Bush and was jockeying for a good showing in the upcoming New Hampshire primary. And Hoffman, then a 27-year-old accountant, was working as a controller for the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee, helping to supervise a $150-million budget. Hoffman, supporting a young family, had landed the job after a few years in the Army reserves and grad school.
It was a memorable experience, Hoffman said — and not just for him. Hoffman is by nature a low-key fellow; but he recalled those frigid days in February 1980 with a fire in his eye. Hockey, not politics, was on his mind.
“The American hockey team was the underdog then,” said Hoffman. Coach Herb Brooks’s motley crew of tough amateurs wasn’t expected to do much of anything against the Soviet Union squad, then considered the best hockey team on the planet. Indeed, the world was thinking the U.S. was lucky to be down only 3–2 at the start of the third period. “Then, the American team came back,” said Hoffman, recalling the Americans’ 4–3 defeat of the Soviets in a medal-round game, in what was soon called “the miracle on ice.”
Maybe Lake Placid has one more miracle left.
Nearly 30 years later, Hoffman finds himself a long-established accountant in the region, just as America once again turns its eyes to New York’s North Country. But this time it’s Hoffman, not hockey, that everyone is watching. Since deciding in July to run for the House as a Conservative against liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava and Democrat Bill Owens, Hoffman’s campaign in NY-23 has become a national phenomenon. It, alongside today’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, is one of the most-watched races of 2009.
Hoffman decided to run because he was unhappy with Scozzafava, who was handpicked by local Republican leaders to run for the seat left vacant by GOP congressman John McHugh when he resigned to join the Obama administration. Hoffman approached Mike Long — the chairman of the Conservative party in New York — about mounting a serious campaign against the pro-choice, pro–gay marriage, stimulus-loving, and card-check-supporting Scozzafava. Long signed on. “Mike gave me a soapbox,” recalled Hoffman last night. “I wouldn’t be here, standing on this platform, without him.”
Hoffman’s upstart campaign started humbly in August, gaining little attention as the Obamacare town-hall meetings dominated the headlines. Then, in September, conservatives nationwide started to whisper about the race in New York State — and about Hoffman, the accountant with a shot at bagging a RINO (Republican in name only). Within weeks, former senator Fred Thompson and former House majority leader Dick Armey gave Hoffman their support — and, more important, some publicity. Soon, a growing host of conservatives had endorsed him — issuing statements and walking alongside Hoffman on the campaign trail — and financial contributions followed. Sarah Palin generated headlines with her endorsement in mid-October, further bolstering his warchest. Prominent conservatives such as Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Michelle Malkin, Bill Kristol, Rick Santorum, and Texas governor Rick Perry also got on board, sensing that this was not only a worthy conservative campaign, but a race that felt like a winner.
“I’m grateful to all of them,” Hoffman said Monday, struggling to finish the long list of conservative leaders who have endorsed him. “Everything’s a blur. Fred and Jeri Thompson came in very early, when our chances seemed to be at their darkest moment. I’m just deeply gratified to everyone that gave me their support, but most importantly to the many Americans across the country who stepped up to the plate and gave us a hand.”
That conservative teamwork paid off. Hoffman surged in the polls. Team Scozzafava got nervous, even calling the cops on a reporter asking tough questions, before finally calling it quits this weekend. On Sunday, Scozzafava even had the nerve to endorse Owens, after the National Republican Congressional Committee had poured thousands into her campaign coffers. Owens brought in Vice President Joe Biden to NY-23 on Monday morning, with the veep blasting Hoffman as a candidate handpicked by Rush Limbaugh and “the Palin wing” of the Republican party.
Hoffman is confident that none of the Biden blather or Scozzafava maneuvering will matter much today. Voters in NY-23, he knows, are worried about bigger things. If his third-party campaign has taught him anything, it’s that ideas count. “This campaign has allowed me to express and defend the values and ideals that I hold dearly,” said Hoffman. “The lessons I’ve learned — and I think everyone has learned — is that you should never think that you can’t do anything about what’s going on in government.”
“The miracle on ice in Lake Placid came right before the beginning of the Reagan revolution,” said Hoffman. While tax-and-spend governance has staged a comeback, “this year, I think we’re seeing the pendulum swing back. Hopefully, this race is a bellwether for the 2010 elections, showing average people that they can step forward, fight back, and argue for commonsense policies that don’t spend money we don’t have.”
On the eve of Election Day, Hoffman is confident about his chances. “Quite honestly, I think the Democrats are afraid,” he says, on his way to one last rally. “They want to scare people into thinking I’m a radical, when I’m just a Ronald Reagan Republican.”
“I only have time for one more question, Bob,” Hoffman says, as cheers start growing behind him. I just wished him the best.
Why didn’t I ask my last question? Well, I already knew the answer.
Do you believe in miracles?
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.